St Vincent, aka Annie Clark, in the East Village, New York City. 'I'm almost immune to the idea of f


Annie Clark may not be godly but when she performs as St. Vincent she is like something out of this world. The Manhattan native made her Sydney Opera House debut for Vivid Festival and received a standing ovation. She had shown us all why 2014 has been her year thanks to a mesmerizing, theatrical show that will go down in the books as a truly special one.

The set list was predominantly made up of songs from her recent, eponymous album. The opening, ‘Rattlesnake’ saw a crazy rhythm combined with an indie pop groove while ‘Birth In Reverse’ was one of the best songs of the evening. It saw a gnarly crunch coupled with a danceable buzz.

The strong songstress also belted out some mean, electric guitar solos whilst striking her best rock star poses. Dressed in head-to-toe black and with a shock of thick, white grey hair, in the shadows she looked like The Cure’s Robert Smith while at her more mischievous and playful moments she resembled Prince.

She cracked jokes, gave a special welcome to the freaks, the others and the weirdos in attendance and told “stories” from her childhood. The latter included wanting to fly, producing fires with a magnifying glass and imagining that famous people’s faces were superimposed on the bodies of the local homeless and elderly people (yes, Clark does have one vivid imagination!)

St. Vincent isn’t just an artist with a swag full of musical chops. She also created different moods for each song, which at times seemed more like a performance art show at a modern museum then your standard gig.

There was some syncopated guitar rocking during ‘Birth In Reverse’; some twinkle toes in ‘Surgeon’; a laidback and casual air in ‘I Prefer Your Love’; and some raw, writhing in ‘Bring Me Your Loves’.

St. Vincent has previously collaborated with former Talking Heads member, David Byrne. He said that after almost a year of touring he still didn’t know her any better. As an audience member one can’t help but feel the same and also imagine that Clark is actually giving away a little piece of herself at every show, such is the visceral, incendiary and evocative moods she created live and feelings that are far more intense than the recorded form.

‘Prince Johnny’ was so tender, sad and operatic. St. Vincent stripped away at every layer in her cries and ended the song looking like a crucified woman. It was a very different feeling to the old song, “Strange Mercy”, where Clark performed solo and left little pockets of air to punctuate the piece.

It is difficult to pigeonhole such a tough chameleon like St. Vincent (especially when you consider her other work with The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens). It would also be a massive disservice to think you could fully capture the crazed magic and colourful sorcery of her guitar hooks, electronic bleeps and amazing songs in a single review.

In short, St. Vincent’s Opera House debut was stunning. Her recent record translated wonderfully to the live stage and featured intense and heavenly art rock painted with the finest brush to reveal an awe-inspiring palate of Technicolor.


Originally published on 27 May 2014 at the following website:

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irvine welsh


Sarah Blasko and Brendan Cowell’s Sydney Writers’ Festival session, “On Writing, Music & Everything In Between” could have been billed, “The Blasko and Cowell Variety Hour”. The two injected a new life into the traditional Writers’ Festival format by opening the show with TV-theme titles and pretending to be from Sunday Arts and a late night chat show. They added a reading, a song, two costume changes and some switched roles. In short it was a vibrant, energetic and fun romp.

Blasko took to the stage first, explaining their individual format and the reason they had opted for it (“We’re friends so we’re likely to talk over each other”.) This was actually the first time the songstress had ever conducted an interview. Yet she proved to be a natural, in addition to being well-researched and prepared plus very funny just adding things off the cuff. She’d initially tell us that she had met Brendan some 16 years ago at a poetry jam at the Friend In Hand pub in Glebe. There she’d told Cowell he looked familiar (this was most likely due to his appearance in a 4 & 20 pie ad). Cowell actually couldn’t remember this particular meeting, but Blasko was cheeky and persistent in her attempts to get him to remember.

This first encounter was an interesting one, because through this performance (and entertaining some 100-200 people) Cowell got the confidence to write his very first play. From there, he would go on to write, act and direct in numerous shows with perhaps his most famous one being Hamlet in a Bell Shakespeare production. One of Cowell’s funniest anecdotes was about his trying out and failing to get into NIDA three times but, “Now I get all these offers from NIDA to teach acting master classes!”

It all worked out well, though, because Cowell went to Bathurst University where he had his own radio show, leaned to juggle and indulged in his love of motor sports. Another funny thing he described was his hobbies after being single for four years. He said he got used to a life where he could, “Swim, write, have some beers and maybe eat corn chips for an hour in the nude”. He hadn’t realised his new girlfriend might find this latter part strange.

The two friends are actually collaborating together because Ruben Guthrie (a play written by Cowell and containing a scene that was performed by him this afternoon) is being made into a film and Blasko will be working on the soundtrack. While Cowell’s interview was funny, it was Blasko’s that was the most intriguing. When she was interviewed we learned that she is a shy, humble introvert who is sometimes plagued by self-doubt, but who loves making and performing music. She is a woman of many facets and contradictions. She described writing her initial albums as not knowing what she was doing and while she still sometimes feels the same way, she does have a greater sense of confidence.

Blasko actually started singing before she began writing. Like Cowell, she grew up in the Sutherland Shire but she came from a religious family and would sing at Church. Her father was very passionate about his record collection and the young Blasko originally disliked classical music but was floored by the soundtrack to The Elephant Man and a Paul McCartney solo record from the 1980s. It was a strange mix but it would lead to her own versatile style with Cowell describing her debut record as “paranoid”, the sophomore as “personal” and the final two as “positive” and “playful”.

The evening concluded with Blasko admitting that she’s in a happy place and that she’s writing lots of upbeat and positive tunes for her next record. She says she is still chasing that elusive, “great” pop song that everyone relates to. But despite this admission, she did a very convincing job with her performance on the piano of “An Arrow” from her latest album, I Awake.

Brendan Cowell and Sarah Blasko proved a formidable and funny pair at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Their session was hilarious and struck a good balance between being light and insightful plus playful and personal. It covered lots of bases and it did so in a charismatic, theatrical, clever and engaging manner.

Originally published on 26 May 2014 at the following website:

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irvine welsh

The Sydney Writers’ Festival may have been described as “Thinking season” but at the beginning of Irvine Welsh’s event the host and journalist, Angus Fontaine declared it, “Drinking season”. The pair originally met some 17 years ago at the same festival where the Scottish author read from his novel, Filth. The two started drinking bloody Mary’s and smoking spiffs at 10AM and the night culminated in a break-in to Town Hall where Welsh fell asleep on stage. It is said that Welsh was banned by the festival, yet in 2014 both he and his writing returned and showed no signs of slowing, as the discussion about his latest book The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins proved.

The book is about two “damaged” female characters who Welsh admits are extensions of his own personality. His wife, Elizabeth even went so far as to say that the female protagonists are the most autobiographical ones Welsh has ever written. The two women have faced severe trauma, one had suffered sexual abuse while the other was grappling with the suicide of a friend. Welsh said he purposely wrote them so that they were simultaneously repelled and fascinated with each other upon meeting. And once they became lovers they both become more balanced and whole individuals.

During the interview and reading, Welsh proved to be as dark, twisted and fascinating as his writing (he even wore a Fluro, yellow Filth t-shirt which featured James McAvoy riding a pig). This author is a man interested in humans, psychology and pushing the boundaries of human behaviour and taste. He says he is constantly wanting to understand and write about the ways people can mess up, because we often make decisions that compound on our existing set of problems. At the same time it is also possible for bad things to happen when we think that everything is fine because you “Get complacent and F**k up” and he added that “Failure is a great educator”.

An extract from Welsh’s new, yet unpublished book was also delivered because the Scot was unsure about whether he would be able to capture his two new female protagonists properly in person. In the reading Welsh played Goose Terry, a taxi driver who has two interests: dealing drugs and picking up women. One of his first lines is: “Because no one wants to see a good fanny go to waste”.

Terry gets into an exchange with a suicidal playwright named Sal. The former uses a mixture of brochure pop psychology (“Get the depressed person talking”) and his own rough manner. His cheeky line: “You’re no good in this car without paying your fair first” was brutal, but got some of the biggest laughs in the audience.

Welsh’s talk was ultimately a lively punch in the face and strut through sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. He reflected on the fallout of his debut novel, Trainspotting; talked about being questioned by his 82-year old Mum concerning his knowledge of lesbian sex (his response: “Hopefully more than you”); and looked back fondly on hanging out with bisexual women in Miami to research his new novel. He recalled six near-death experiences, declared the heroin years a “stupid” time, and reflected on his life and writing style or a world where those involved are rallying against the establishment and face being consumed by the eye of the hurricane. It was a harrowing, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style experience that couldn’t have been any further removed from a standard Writers’ Festival event if it had tried.

Originally published on 26 May 2014 at the following website:

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Sex After Kids -FILM


There was a recent study which found that newborns often cry during the night because they’re trying to prevent their parents from reproducing again. This is the same sort of environment that the light comedy, Sex After Kids with tag line, “By any means necessary” comes from. This film explores sexuality and the social issues associated with child-rearing through a diverse cast of characters. The main topic is that of a lack of sex – particularly for those parents who still want and need it – and this is explored and the ramifications of this on relationships are shown.

Sex After Kids was written and directed by rising director, Jeremy Lalonde. It is only his second feature and the film does show some promise, despite having a significant amount of flaws. The story follows an eccentric, ensemble cast whose lives are forcibly interconnected and covers a diverse and eclectic range of experiences. The first couple we meet are new parents, Jules (Shannon Beckner) and Ben (Ennis Esmer) who haven’t had sex in a year. The reason is that the former has become scared of her husband’s penis and she is also exhausted by the demands of her young child. She does however, find solace in a rather absurd and clichéd form, in the family washing machine.

The next couple are two lesbians (Kate Hewlett and Mary Krohnert) who bicker and argue over child-rearing and other important decisions. They also grapple with the idea of motherhood (for instance, is one of them more of the child’s mother because she gave birth to the kid?) Then there’s the power couple where the husband (Peter Keleghan) is having difficulty finding his wife (Amanda Brugel) – herself a former model – attractive, while the new Mum deals with her post baby weight. It’s a similar story for the older couple of empty nesters, Horton and Dolores (Jay Brazeau and Mimi Kuzyk) who haven’t done the deed in so long that the very proposition of “it” was first considered by Dolores to be a joke.

The film also includes two single parents. There’s the Dad (Kris Holden-Ried) who is too fussy when it comes to prospective partners. There is also a liberated Mum, Lou (Zoie Palmer) who got herself pregnant. Lou is perhaps the most interesting character of the lot and Palmer does an excellent job delivering the one-liners and jokes. The biggest problem with a lot of the characters however, is that their back story isn’t properly fleshed out so they succumb to being a mix of stereotypes and caricatures of real people.

The issues with the characters are also not helped when they are added to some rather absurd and ridiculous situations (like Lou thinking that impersonating the writer, Margaret Atwood, would make her a perfect seductress. And in another date she actually manages to drug her potential lover). These situations mean the story is transformed from one that could have been quite relatable and meaningful to the world of stupid, forgettable farce.

Sex After Kids ambles along at times and visually it has a rather low-budget look and feel. It is unquestionably a flawed film but underneath it all it does still manage to have a warm heart and at its core it was a good idea that failed in its execution. The film gets at the confusion, frustration and dissatisfaction felt by a variety of parents, but it also makes light of some awkward situations. It’s a story that should resonate at least in part with most parents but one can’t help but feel a little unfulfilled after watching this pleasant yet cliché-ridden, comedy romp.

Originally published on 22 May 2014 at the following website:

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Food Books Music: Stefano Manfredi

One of Australia’s finest chefs and one known as a master of Italian cuisine, Stefano Manfredi, will talk about the musical, literary and artistic influences that have helped him create world-renowned dishes and menus. He is in conversation with ABC 702’s Simon Marnie at The Star’s Osteria Balla where a three-course meal will be accompanied by some wonderful music.

More information HERE

Irvine Welsh: The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins

Irvine Welsh is known the world over as the author of the cult classic, Trainspotting. He returns to the Sydney Writers’ Festival to discuss his new novel, The Sex Lives Of Siamese Twins. True to form, the book sees two memorable female protagonists, a bizarre sado-masochistic incident and a frenzied mix of comedy, drama and hard-hitting issues.

More information HERE

Anatomy Of The Song

Three of Australia’s best songwriters, Sarah Blasko, Josh Pyke and Urthboy appear in conversation with 2SER’s music director, Andrew Khedoori where they will discuss where inspiration strikes, how a song is created and most importantly, what is found in a “good” song?

More information HERE

True Crimes: John Safran and Michaela McGuire

Last year agent provocateur, John Safran made his true-crime debut with Murder In Mississippi, a non-fiction book set in America’s deep south that examined the murder of a white supremacist by a young black man. He appears in conversation with fellow true crime author, Michaela McGuire and journalist and broadcaster, Sian Prior. The former who will also discuss her new book, Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling Morality and the Law, which looks at the death of a patron at Melbourne’s Crown Casino following a violent altercation with a bouncer.

More information HERE

Honourable mention: The Chaser’s Empty Vessel (nightly from May 22 to 24): Chris Taylor and Julian Morrow from The Chaser host over an hour of entertainment, including interviews with some of the biggest guests appearing at Sydney Writers’ Festival as well as music and their own sketches and monologues. These variety nights prove to be great fun and are very popular.

Originally published on 14 May 2014 at the following website:

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The Next Black is a fashion documentary that doesn’t look at what’s in style now; nor does it examine what will be fashionable in a year’s time. Instead, it looks around the corner at what is coming next by interviewing the pioneers and innovators within the industry who are using technology and new ideas to create garments that are stylish, environmentally sound and forward-thinking.

This 40 minute film is directed by David Dworsky and Victor Köhler, the pair who are also responsible for directing the documentary, PressPausePlay, which looked at how the digital revolution is impacting on the arts world. The duo use a combination of voiceovers, talking head interviews and footage of the actual outfits in action to tell the story with both black and white and colour film. Nancy Tilbury from Studio XO describes how fashion and technology intersect. This was done especially well with the 3D printed dress that Studio XO made for Lady Gaga, which also shot out bubbles.

Lady Gaga’s outfit may have looked amazing but it is Matt Hymers from adidas who is developing the smartest clothes. The company is working in consultation with various athletes worldwide to develop sports uniforms that monitor performance (such as heart rate). Suzanne Lee on the other hand, is helping create sustainable fabrics with cellulose-producing microbes in a practice that is closer to food and drink manufacture than producing traditional textiles.

Other areas helping with the sustainable fashion movement who are featured here include Sophie Mather from Yeh Group where dyes that use no water have been developed and Vice President of Environmental Initiatives at Patagonia and activist, Rick Ridgeway who is leading a crusade by encouraging people to recycle and fix clothes. Another pair helping with the latter movement is Kyle Wiens and Brittany McCrigler from iFixit who show people how to sew and repair clothes.

The Next Black is all about challenging the idea of clothes, as some players in the fashion industry go through dramatic shifts towards sustainability and exploring new technologies and practices. The film is an interesting one that will have a broad appeal and impact, especially in this current environment of fast fashion and consumerism. This documentary is perhaps best summed up with the quote by the late Coco Chanel that is delivered in the opening scene, “Fashion passes, style remains”.


Originally published on 13 May 2014 at the following website:

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Last year marked the 20th anniversary of Irvine Welsh’s debut novel, Trainspotting. The story is about a bunch of junkies and a violent alcoholic. It was initially a cult book, was then a successful stage play and eventually was adapted into a blockbuster film starring Ewan McGregor. The first theatre production of Trainspotting took place in Edinburgh in 1994 and it has since gone on to win awards and audiences alike with various adaptations over time. The latest version comes courtesy of Black Box Theatre and Emu Productions. They’re presenting the Sydney premiere, which is based on Harry Gibson’s original, gritty stage play which looks set to become another cult favourite.

Trainspotting is not a story for the faint-hearted or easily offended. At King Street Theatre in Newtown, the audience were warned of the coarse language, violence and adult themes that is found in this confronting, abrasive and controversial production. This current adaptation is directed by Luke Berman (Playmates, Proof) and is heavily focused on the original stage performance rather than the novel or film (although the movie’s two most infamous scenes involving the toilet and the dead baby are brought here to intense, horrific life).

The cast is led by Damien Carr (A Glass Menagerie, Everynight Everynight), who plays the unemployed anti-hero, Mark Renton, plus some minor cameos. Carr proves to be engaging and charming as the primary storyteller and he is joined by a versatile cast. Taylor Beadle-Williams (Amnesia, Plans, The Crucible) plays every major female role while Leigh Scully (Home & Away, Rescue Special Operations) is Franco Begbie, Johnny Swan and Mrs Renton. Brendon Taylor (Antony & Cleopatra, As You Like It) also plays the callous Sick Boy, the unhinged Tommy Murphy and Morag “Jam Rag” Henderson.

The actors keep the mood electric, crisp and charged as they are forced to alternate between roles at the drop of a hat. They are convincing (both with their acting and Scottish accents). One minor issue on opening night however, was that there were a couple of fumbles over some difficult lines and a couple of problems with malfunctioning props (although the actors did brilliantly to keep pace when things went wrong).

This adaption features a series of brave vignettes that share the same consistent and focused energy on the junkie characters, their associates and most importantly, their dark lives. The story is in part narrated and it has some of the same witty, stream-of-conscious-style quotes that Welsh had originally penned. A case in point is the brilliant soliloquy: ‘Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family… I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin”’.

The set is very stark and minimal and is fitting when you consider the story’s depressed, economic setting (the 1980s in Edinburgh). A bed is used in the second part as a place of withdrawal as well as a coffin and there are also milk crates, the famed toilet and a graffiti-filled door. The background proves as confronting and gloomy as the actual tale. The use of music is also good. It’s occasionally used when the characters are taking trips and lends the proceedings a spaced-out, hypnotic feel, while at other moments songs like Blondie’s “Atomic”, Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” help create an excellent mood.

Over the years the Trainspotting book, film and play has divided critics as it is brutal, fearless and hell-bent on creating horror and destruction. This adaptation also manages to achieve this and is intense, raw and eye-opening. Not for the young or faint-hearted, Trainspotting looks at the difficulties of boredom and the tragedy of self-medication, addiction and poverty, while showing us how our choices can result in things that are like a cold, hard punch to the face.

Originally published on 13 May 2014 at the following website:

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Dave Hughes’ strine is as recognisable as an ambulance or car horn but at his recent show at the Factory Theatre it was like music to the ears of comedy fans. The former star of The Project and The Glass House brought his laidback, ocker approach to his stand-up show à la Carl Baron, but he also peppered his routines with sarcastic rants about his kids and modern life in a similar way to Dylan Moran and Alan Davies. It was fun, entertaining and funny.

Hughes’ set went for just over an hour and started off with an appraisal of Sydney’s “Full on” traffic scene. He questioned the use of “Keep clear” signs on the road since he hadn’t noticed he’d driven over them and then segued into most comedians’ favourite choice of material, airlines. Tonight’s topic featured the budget ones after Hughesy had just “missed” a flight that hadn’t taken off and was still sitting on the runway. The paperwork proved too much for the flight attendant but Hughesy did get good mileage (pun intended) out of the jokes.

Another favourite topic of Hughes was his three children, aged five and under. There were questions about the importance of a first birthday that won’t be remembered, jokes about the kids playing pretend cafes, and how hard it is to get change when you have the trio in tow and one insists on listening to the Frozen soundtrack for the hundredth time. Some of the other funny stars of the evening were the Hughes’ family pets, including an overweight cat (“He finishes breakfast and starts campaigning for lunch”) and their stupid, balloon-eating dog who is befuddled by the doggie door and thinks it’s a big trick when he’s pushed through it).

Hughes did touch on some more risqué topics, like Olympians and celebrities taking drugs (“It’s like driving a Ferrari to Blacktown, it’s a good trip but you end up in a bad place”); having sex even though his son has a tendency to call in on their room as he makes his way to bed; and asking two young men about their downstairs manscaping. Hughes was very quick-witted during this exchange. When the bloke said he did trim things because otherwise it gets too fluffy, the comedian shot back, “Well, stop shampooing it!”

An additional rant by Hughesy was inspired by some hipsters running a café. They apparently looked like members of the Kelly gang and served coffee in jam pots. Hughesy asked why they were charging him $4.50 when they couldn’t even afford a proper mug. He also changed topic by describing some of his favourite fan and celebrity encounters including interviews with One Direction and Brad Pit (the latter ended poorly after Hughes called Eric Bana, “Eric Banana”.

Dave Hughes’ show was timely as he took pot-shots and joked about recent events in the media (including reality TV). He was also very funny just being himself and talking about the hilarious things his wife, children and pets do. In just over an hour the comedian stayed faithful to his ocker image and entertained us with the kinds of funny rants he was renowned for doing on The Glass House. Anyone who has seen Hughes on TV will confirm how funny he is and it’s fair to say that he’s even more so in real life.

Originally published on 12 May 2014 at the following website:

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If Jon Favreau’s film, Chef were a food it would be garlic. It’s a product adored by some, hated by others and is not rare. This light comedy with hints of drama does hit the mark, in some respects. But on other points it is a half-baked, lukewarm pie that will underwhelm fans of his other work.

Favreau is the writer, producer, director and star of this film. He is also the man well-known for having directed the movie, Swingers as well as big-budget flicks, Iron Man and Iron Man 2. For Chef, this is a homecoming and labour of love of sorts with Favreau returning to his indie roots, although this film was the opening night one at SXSW and boasts cameos from no less than Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr.

The story is centred on Carl Casper (Favreau), who is the head-chef at a prominent Los Angeles restaurant. He was once considered a rising star in the culinary world but lately he has been sitting on his laurels, serving up popular yet unimaginative food. When the restaurant is faced with a visit from the infamously acerbic food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), Casper thinks it’s time to experiment with a new menu but his controlling boss, Riva (Hoffman) stops this.

Michel gives Casper a harsh review and the former is even personal in his vitriol (suggesting the chef’s weight gain is because patrons have been sending food back to the kitchen and Casper has been eating the dishes). The review goes viral and Casper’s well-meaning and tech-savvy son (played by the adorable and wide-eyed,Emjay Anthony) introduces his Dad to Twitter. This culminates in a war of words between the chef and critic and leads to Casper quitting his job and unable to find a new one.

Luckily, Casper’s ex-wife (an over-the-top, Sofía Vergara) comes to the rescue. She suggests Casper should contact her ex-husband (Downey Jr.) who owns an old food truck. The vehicle is in desperate need of repair but it does help salvage Casper’s relationship to his estranged son and wife, as he embarks on a road trip with the boy and his former line chef (John Leguizamo).

The unlikely trio sell Cuban sandwiches and pick up many new fans along the way (including comedian, Russell Peters who acts as an overzealous cop). They proceed to tell the world about their new venture through social media and this adds a multimedia-like aspect to the production. The second act is where the film really picks up in terms of showing real emotion. It also boasts an excellent soundtrack with Latin pop and beats plus groovy, New Orleans blues (not to mention a great cameo from Gary Clark Jr.).

Chef’s biggest problem is that it’s an over-stuffed and rambling affair, especially in the setup during the first act where a number of jokes miss the mark. Some of the supporting characters are hollow- Michel is just a caricature while Scarlett Johansson’s Molly is rather redundant (she is there simply to assure the chef that he is wonderful and to pull sultry faces when some beautiful food is on display). That said, the images of the food are exquisite and look scrumptious (professional chef, Roy Choi oversaw the prepared dishes and it shows). It seems that this will send audiences away hungry (not just those looking to satiate their actual appetites but possibly for ones wanting a film that was a little less lightweight).

This film has some real heart as Casper rekindles his love of cooking, builds bridges with his family and brings us all along for a wacky adventure. But this sunny film ultimately is an overlong, slow-burner that tries to be too much (a road trip film, romantic comedy, relationship drama and even a chef’s story about exploring creativity). In short, it’s warm and easy-going like apple pie but for some it will prove to be as forgettable as a value meal from McDonalds.

Originally published on 6 May 2014 at the following website:

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The name, Belle brings to mind a beautiful, English rose. But Dido Elizabeth Belle, the real-life woman and beauty at the heart of Amma Asante’s second feature is a little more complicated than that. The illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral is sent to live with her distant, aristocratic family at their estate, Kenwood House, after her father is sent away and her mother dies. What ensues is a compelling tale where gender, race, politics, class, ethics and other social conflicts collide.

The year is 1769 and England still employs slaves. It is also the same year that Belle’s adopted father, the First Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson)presides over a landmark, legal case. The Zong massacre was the subject and it saw some 142 slaves die while they were in passage. Some were diseased and would not fetch the appropriate price if they made it to their final destination. Many individuals subsequently drowned and an insurance claim was made for these “lost goods”. It was Murray who had to decide whether this act was a deliberate case of fraud and whether you could put a price on human life.

Belle herself was also forced to grapple with some difficult issues and she is ably played here by the strong, dignified and thoughtful, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Her real father (Matthew Goode) changed her circumstances in life when he bestowed her upon his wealthy uncle and asked the latter to become her guardian. But she was also forced into a world where she was educated and for all intents and purposes treated like a lady, but her race precluded her from reaping the same benefits as her white cousin and pseudo-sister, Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon).

This slow-burning film really hits its stride when it steers away from Cinderella clichés and stops giving airtime to characters that bear a striking resemblance to some of Jane Austen’s sillier creations (i.e. the ones obsessed with marriage, wealth and little else). Thanks to a stellar cast (which also includes Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson and Sam Reid), Belle manages to get to the heart of the story’s raw and pure emotion and ask the bigger questions. These include Belle’s own enquiries about how a local clergyman can be welcomed to dine at a table where she is not allowed (as she is considered too important to sit with the slaves but not good enough to sit with her own family whenever company is around). There is also the question of whether the heiress, Belle will ever be able to marry a man who is as wealthy as herself.

The story is actually inspired by the 1779 portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. There are few concrete facts known about these two women, which meant that the film’s writer, Misan Sagay was able to cast her own ideas and pure fiction into a broader, historic context for the script. For the most part this works well and it proves an inspirational tale as the oppressed lead character overcomes various impediments before eventually discovering her true place in society. It’s not an easy journey but there are times where it does reach a tense climax. Plus, the film’s biggest strengths are when it gets the opportunity to showcase sumptuous production values, lavish costumes and an all-round glorious design.

Belle is ultimately an emotionally-charged, layered and extraordinary period drama about one strong woman and her family. It manages to retain a beautiful feel and sentimentality, even while dealing with the darker horrors and conflicts of the day. The defiant lead characters prove equally entertaining and inspiring; the secondary love story will make audiences want to cry; and it will ultimately leave people with lots to talk and think about.



Originally published on 4 May 2014 at the following website:

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